Monday, 30 December 2013

Witty Women in the Workplace: Why using humour more can boost your career

Research demonstrates that using humour at work is good for career progression. But it seems that women use it far less than men and this might be holding them back.  

 Comedian turned psychology graduate Ruby Wax says: "The past 10 years have seen a huge change in corporate culture.  People used to want to hire the smartest, slickest candidate. Now they want a human being, someone they can trust. It’s borne out of the recession, of witnessing so many big boys turn out to be crooks.”  So demonstrating charm and authenticity is good business as well as good manners. 

 Women are certainly able to use humour.  Anyone who as ever seen a group of women on a night out together making each other laugh hysterically can vouch for that.  But, unlike men, we don't use it in mixed groups very often and tend to leave it at home when we walk past reception on Monday morning.

This seems to be another area where boys have the advantage from childhood.  Scientists argue that men start using humour systematically with each other in their teens as a way of channeling testosterone and this develops into the male banter that seems to come so naturally to them as adults.  Men use this without thinking in business. It allows them to show they are intelligent and that they can make others comfortable.  Others interpret these characteristics as leadership and it is a subtle indicator of power and control.

So it stands to reason that if we can bring the humour we share with our girlfriends into the workplace we will be more successful.  It sounds easy but it doesn’t work quite like that in practice.  Rolling your eyes as you tell your colleagues about your husband leaving the toilet seat up won’t do much for your image.  And joke telling isn't the answer, although it’s useful to have one up your sleeve in case of emergencies. 

Women apparently  find it harder to remember jokes than men.  Despite feverish attempts I can only ever reliably remember one joke  - "What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back?  A stick".  It makes my children groan.  But the last time I tried it on another senior woman during a very boring meeting she snorted with laughter so perhaps it has hidden depths. 

Miranda Hart copyright

It's really just about making others feel relaxed and comfortable which is after all when most of us do our best work.  And you can do that most effectively by being comfortable in your own skin and relaxing enough to trust others and take a few risks.  It will make you seem human and in control and sends a subtle message that you are taking care of the harmony and productivity of the group as a whole. 

Brits may have a natural advantage.  We grow up in a culture where pomposity is a cardinal sin and making others laugh, especially at our own expense, is a required social skill.  But anyone can do it.  If you need some ideas read this recent article written by the hilarious Miranda Hart. I’ll certainly be following her advice.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Keeping up your energy

Having good reserves of energy is one of the most important characteristics of a successful leader. But people have varying natural levels of energy and you need to pay attention to topping up your physical and mental energy levels regularly.

Everyone gains their energy in different ways. I find cooking and gardening both relaxing and creative. Importantly both are often solitary and do not require conversation. I tend to find after weeks where I am 'on' all the time and meetings and calls fill all day, my own company doing something that is both creative and useful very helpful and restorative.

I also find being outside and seeking out wonderful views and vistas fills my energy banks. Fresh air is definitely good for you - our brains use twenty per cent of our oxygen so the more fresh air you can breathe the better.

I am not one of nature's athletes and find the gym and jogging very dull. This meant I just didn't do enough exercise which didn't worry me until I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Which was a wake up call. In the past few years I have taken up yoga and pilates which work for me. The yoga teaches you how to meditate and breathe deeply which are in themselves great stress relievers and the pilates is good to combat all that sitting down.

My latest idea is taking up dancing. Every winter I suffer from Strictly envy - watching the duffer celebrities turn themselves into elegant quick-stepping sylphs I am always sure that a few classes would see me slimmer fitter and generally happier.  This time I have actually started a class. Let's hope I make it past Christmas.

Brownies - my secret weapon

Most working women struggle with feeling guilty about not being their children's primary carer. I know I identified completely with Alison Pearson's character Kate Reddy in "I don't know how she does it" who bought mince pies and bashed them about with a rolling pin to look homemade for her child to take into school. Most of us secretly want to be able to spend afternoon's in the kitchen whipping up home baked treats for our children when they come back from school. The reality is often very different - I tried cooking with both my children when they were small and chaos ensued.

I found a few shortcuts really helped. Most weeks I made a batch of something - biscuits, fairy cakes or muffins to go in the children's lunch boxes. Not only did they feel I was 'present' in their day - their friends loved eating them too which made my children feel good. You can freeze most of these kinds of snacks too so you could make a big batch once a a month. The trick is to find an easy recipe that you can do quickly. I used to do it on Sunday evenings while the children were getting their things together for school with the Antiques Roadshow in the background. Brownies were always most in demand and here's my favourite recipe from The Little Red Barn Baking Book by Adriana Rabinovich - it is quick and easy and always works.


125g plain flour
1/2tsp salt
110g good quality plain chocolate (min 70 per cent cocoa solids)
110g unsalted butter
150g dark soft brown sugar
150g caster sugar
2 eggs
50g chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)

Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees C/Gas 3. Butter and flour a 23cm square cake pan.

Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Melt the chocolate with the butter in a double boiler or a bowl set over a pan of hot water (you can use a microwave but keep an eye on it). Remove from the heat, add the brown and caster sugars and leave to dissolve slightly, then stir to combine. Add the eggs, one by one, beating after each addition. Add the nuts and stir. The mixture should be very glossy. Gently fold in the flour. Don't over mix.

Spread the mixture in the prepared pan to form an even layer. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until just set in the middle. A wooden skewer inserted should come out with a few moist crumbs on it. Don't over bake. leave to cool in the pan for 30 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.

Makes 16-20 brownies.

The other tip I would pass on is doing Sunday lunch. Sometimes it was the only time in the week I had the time to cook a proper family meal from scratch and it has the benefit of being very easy to do for lots of people so it can double up as your weekly entertainment - family, friends or quite often my children's friends. People of all ages seem to love it and it is no more work to cook for eight or ten than four if you do a roast lunch and the dishwasher can take the strain afterwards. Having the family and our friends around me made me feel like a 'normal' person at least once in the week and I found it did me as much good as anyone.

Getting Organized with Mind Maps

It is the CEO's job to simplify complexity and explain their vision to others so that everyone knows their role in delivering goals.  I have explored various tools to help me to do this better.

I have done quite a bit of work over the past few years with management consultants and one of them in particular drilled regularly that "structure sets you free".  I was dubious at first as I have never seen myself as a left brainer.  Instead my adult life has been punctuated by being a last minute junkie - pulling all nighters to write student essays to late night powerpoint sessions before pitches - old habits die hard.

He patiently taught me how to take big picture ideas and break them into their constituent parts so that you can easily organise and implement.  Consultants call this approach MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive).  This has made a huge difference to my efficiency and also that of those who work with you.  One way to think about this is the well-worn phrase "You can't can't eat an elephant but you can eat an elephant sandwich". It is one of the most useful ideas to bear in mind if you want to maxmise work life balance and still be a high achiever.

Taking this into my daily life I have found mind maps invaluable. I started with a wonderful book called "mind mapping in a week" written by the king of mind mapping Tony Buzan and a pack of coloured pens. This got me rather odd looks from people but captured my imagination. Then I discovered mind mapping software and I was away.

Now I have an Ipad and use Mind Jet - their Ipad app is my standby. It is completely intuitive, and can be used across multiple platforms. I can't recommend it highly enough. If you like variety I have also used Visual Mind which is a good version for teams to use.  I have complete confidence that I can create anything on a page from the most complicated three year business plan to a shopping list.

I think mind mapping is paritcularly suited to women. It is accepted that women multi-task better than men - recently tested interestingly and proved to be true.  Multi-tasking  involves linking sub tasks together to get a job done in the shortest time possible which is the idea behind mind-mapping.   This makes mind-mapping very natural and easy - almost relaxing. There is something extremely satisfying about making sure you've captured each step you need to achieve a major goal - rather like the satisfaction you can get from a really clean pile of washing and ironing.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Granny Power : Top jobs, top beds and why you should never give up on looking good

Courtesy of The Express
There seems to have been a sudden outbreak of power pensioners taking over the world’s top jobs. Apparently unnoticed, much of the control of the free world has fallen into the hands of a clutch of ladies old enough to collect their bus passes. Eleanor Mills revealed this trend in a recent Sunday Times article entitled ‘The grey and comfy shape of things to come’ focusing on the ‘grandmotherly’ appeal of Janet Yellen, President Obama's choice to take over as Chief of the Federal Reserve, Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton amongst a clutch of others.

I applaud a focus on brains and skills over image.  But frankly I don’t aspire to stride the world sporting elastic waists and cosy trouser suits and I don’t think you need to choose.  And neither, does it seem, do the pensioners I met recently at my local hospital where I recently spent two days in my local A and E department with my ageing mother who needed help for a nasty blood clot in her leg.

Janet Yellen (courtesy BloombergBusinessWeek)
Over two days the A and E admissions consisted almost entirely of the over 75s and the under 5s.  I suspect the second two groups are typical of a nationwide picture if the statistics are to be believed. I saw a stream of old people admitted (including my mother) many with problems that would never require hospital admission in a younger person.  They are allocated beds often for days or even weeks and I couldn’t help wondering how many people planning operations were being told they just had to get to the back of the queue.

Statistics show that there has been an alarming rise in cancellations of operations because of the pressure created by A and E admissions using the beds.  Sometimes operations are cancelled ON THE DAY. What kind of medieval torment is that? I can think of little worse than having spent months psyching myself up for a hip replacement only to be told that Mrs Miggins has fallen over her cat and has jumped the queue and so I will have to postpone making my peace with my family, God and everyone who knows me for another couple of days. 

But there was a plus side. These elderly ladies clearly weren’t compromising on their appearance. In the hospital shop alongside hundreds of copies of the Daily Mail and packets of wet wipes, I noticed a nail varnish drying machine and a pair of hair straighteners for sale.  Which made me wonder.  Are all these pensioners whisked into the wards from A and E secretly planning to shin down the fire escapes for glamorous nights out hitting the dance floor and downing their bodyweight in Mojitos? Makes you think.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

"Wanted. Aggressive, egotistical leader with a preference for wasting colleague's time. A love of grandstanding in meetings essential".

Barriers are less visible than we think

Ineffective leadership is certainly not a uniquely male attribute.  But research into the reasons why women don’t put themselves forward for top jobs is increasingly pointing to what the Harvard Business Review recently called a ‘second generation gender bias’ as a significant cause.  The research suggests that women suffer from hidden barriers created by their lack of internal confidence in assuming behaviour associated with leadership.  Data shows that women aren’t taking the opportunities to move into the top roles even when they are offered.  We’re not solving this problem

It’s a curious conundrum.  Organisations are spending more each year on leadership training to encourage the development of skills such as listening, empathy and collaborative problem solving. Potential and established leaders are coached, mentored and trained to within an inch of their lives because research tells us that these – traditionally feminine – skills make more effective leaders and thus more successful businesses.

But returning to the office from team cooking courses we find an all too familiar round of often ineffective meetings and engagements. Grandstanding in meetings and Olympic level office politics are an accepted proving ground for potential leaders – allowing them to show their dominance and strength to others. Women don’t respond to these signals and often find them pointless and off –putting.
Some of this is biological.  Men and women really are wired differently.  Me Tarzan, you Jane. My husband (who regular readers already know I consider to be a reasonable and forward thinking kind of guy) thinks it’s simply evolution.  He believes men are just hardwired to compete with each other at everything important.  Like rutting stags, the prize is the best mate and if you fail, at least you died trying. Women on the other hand couldn’t afford to risk their lives – they needed to stay alive to protect their children.  Today this translates into grandstanding even bullying for men while women look on pityingly, reject the whole caboodle and go off to do something more productive elsewhere.  

But by walking away from this issue and allowing the women in boardrooms debate to focus primarily on social policy, I think we’re missing an important opportunity.  Yes those meetings can make us roll our eyes and grumble to our girlfriends about timewasting. But if you can overcome your flight instincts, the prize is there.  Women who engage actively often find they have precisely the skills they need to help a group to solve complex problems collaboratively – usually faster and with less stress all round.  And that’s very satisfying as well as being effective. But to do this, they need to be at the table.  And believe a bit of frustration is worth enduring for a better long-term result for everyone.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Black Sabbath and the Bake-Off

This may be the first time anyone has seen Black Sabbath and Mary Berry together in the same sentence.  Crazy perhaps -  but in my daughter’s life they are the most natural of bedfellows.

She represents a new generation – freed from the rules that I had at her age which still clung to our grandparent's views hanging over from the war.  My 21 year old is that rare thing – a female engineer .  And that alone is something to celebrate.

Her life isn’t easy.  She works hard – far harder than I did at her age.  She is growing up without certainty of employment – the shadow that hangs over this generation of which we were blissfully unaware.  But she has the freedom to mix it up in a way I don’t remember us having – whether due to ignorance or a lack of imagination. 

She relaxes with an evening of heavy metal – spending all her spare cash on gigs watching bands that I thought were already dead – Iron Maiden, AC/DC (but no, they are all back on tour and still alive), or with titles that make you feel faintly sick (Slayer, Megadeath), or are just plain weird.

The head-banging, brownie-baking engineer
But once the hangover has worn off, she indulges herself with her other hobby – baking.  Her role model is the septuagenarian Mary Berry – she asked for a food processor for her 21st birthday – and she told me last week she  made bread, despite having an oven in her student house slightly less effective than a calor gas stove.

This generation of women won’t have to be told to lean in.  They’re making up their own rules.

Monday, 15 July 2013

As women increasingly outperform men, is feminism becoming irrelevant?

For many years the idea of feminism and equality have been largely synonymous.  Indeed Wikipedia defines a feminist as someone one who “advocates or supports the rights and equality of women”.
In an excellent recent  article, Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson  suggested that this concept is coming apart.  He opined that with the success of young women at all levels of education and in the workplace, we may be seeing a long term trend where the ‘British economy will become feminised and utterly transformed’.  As well as outperforming boys in at school, girls are now the majority of University graduates and women in the 22-30 age- bracket are paid more than their male equivalents.

Generation Y - adjusting to a feminised world from an early age
It is reasonable to assume that  these young women might wish to settle down and have children with men their intellectual and social equals, but if this trajectory continues there will not be enough suitable men  to go round. Successful women will be faced with the choice of either not having children or “trading down” to find a father for their children.   This raises the interesting prospect of the equality debate going the other way.

Throughout my 25 years in the PR industry, women have always greatly outnumbered men in all levels below the Boardroom where the relationship is almost completely inverted. 
The  industry is typically almost entirely a graduate profession and remains a very popular choice with high performing graduates.  When I ran H&K we had hundreds of highly qualified applicants for our graduate entry scheme often with two or more degrees , several languages and various exotic hobbies to hire from.  And all that for 18 grand a year. So our industry should be a leading indicator of the trend Nelson is identifying.
Rather depressingly, over my quarter century the paltry amount of senior women seems to have barely shifted.  We have hardly been standard bearers for the equality agenda – let alone a feminist one.  Maybe these women could afford not to return to work after having children.  Or perhaps their husbands were not prepared to face the perceived stigma of being the primary child carer.  My experience (primary bread winner, flexible supportive husband) was rare ten years ago when we decided to role reverse.  It felt like a difficult choice for us both.  Now society seems much less judgemental ,  and I am happy to see far more couples making this choice. 

But logically, despite the carnage of the child bearing years which typically see a worrying chunk of talented women leave the industry, the preponderance of bright motivated  women who either have no children or who are the primary bread winner should lead to at least equality in the boardroom.   It will be interesting to see whether if  in the next 10-15 years women reach the top of the industry to the degree that their number and talents deserve.  And on their own terms, not solely by making typically 'male' choices.  If so, we will not really have moved at all on the feminist agenda, although the equality debate may be deemed to be over.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Snoozing into the Boardroom– can we really nap our way to work life balance?

Zen to zzzz... finding balance can be hard

They say be careful what you wish for.  I started this blog partly because I didn't think there was enough debate about some of the practical reasons why women weren't making it into senior roles.  I clearly started a trend - every Sunday the newspapers feature another book,  survey or a conference asking questions and proposing solutions.

One of the latest is from Arianna Huffington who recently held an event in New York exploring the need for the Third Metric – which she defines as a third way of measuring success in the workplace that better suits work life balance.  The first and second are our old friends power and money and she describes this third metric as 'the pursuit of wonder and wisdom'. Seriously? Who signs up to a session helping exploring ’wonder’?.  But the Wellness and the Bottom Line session did catch my eye. 

It was led by clinicians describing the stress we put our bodies under as we juggle to ‘have it all’.  The juggling that we think is a sign of how organized and productive we are actually means having our ‘flight or flight’ responses permanently switched to ‘on’ .  Evolution has meant that we can’t distinguish between running way from a mammoth from crashing through a pile of email while doing the Waitrose order and monitoring the packed lunches.  Our bodies don’t know they’re different and they don’t vary our response.  They just keep us highly stressed to cope.

This is bad for us whether we realize it or not.  All that adrenalin all stored up with nowhere to go can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, weight gain, you name it.

Poolside naps - double the benefit?
The cure happily seems to be more sleep and more vacations.  And resetting our success measures so that we don’t think a good day is one in which we juggled three more things than we did the day before without keeling over.  Apparently Americans – who seem to get tiny amounts of vacation by European standards – failed to take on average nine days of it last year.  By my calculations that’s nearly half.  I don’t think we’re quite that bad here judging by the queues down the A3 heading for the coast at the slightest glimmer of sunshine, but it’s a worrying trend.

As for sleep, another British survey published recently said that over two thirds of us get seven hours or less a night.  I am a reformed sleep deprivation addict. When I was running a large company I used to get by on around six hours a night.  This went on for several years – and I eventually worked out that at that rate I was missing one night's sleep a week.  Imagining missing one day’s food a week? (actually that might be good for me…).

I read that as you get older you need less sleep.  That might be true in your eighties, but I am making up for lost time.  I try to sleep eight hours a night for the first time in my adult life.  Makes you feel great, its free and you can do it anywhere.  Not many things you can say that about. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The ambition gap - can it ever close?

The last week has brought inevitable reflection on Margaret Thatcher's role as a role model for ambitious women wanting senior leadership roles.  Some criticised her, pointing to a lack of policy initiatives giving ordinary working women a helping hand to follow her example. Famously she never put herself forward as a feminist - instead she tended to present herself as someone who just wanted to do the job and was prepared for the trade-offs that this brought.  And she said many times that if it hadn't been for Dennis she would never have been able to do her job.  

I was a 'child' of Thatcher - when I was getting married and starting my career she was an apparently unassailable presence.  I don't remember then seeing her as a role model per se - rather thinking she was a one-off, a force of nature.    

One word repeats itself in the obituaries and comments.  Ambition.  Clear and unapologetic.  We might not like to admit it, but the evidence is clear that women find it significantly harder than men to identify with the idea of success. And that leads to an 'ambition gap' which plays a significant role in keeping women out of the top jobs.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, 48% of men describe themselves as ambitious against only 35% of women and further only 15% of women aspire to positions of power as opposed to 27% of men.  I wonder if the use of the word 'power' is part of the issue here -less than a third of men feel comfortable saying they actively want it.  There is a deep-seated belief amongst women which I think is introduced from childhood that actively wanting power is unattractive and unladylike and thus not associated with reward or pleasure.

I think this a tricky issue to address - really we need to find new ways for ambitious women to express their ambition in language with which makes them comfortable and confident. 

When I looked into it, this goes deeper than I thought. I am an avowed follower of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus(if you have somehow never read this - do - one of the most useful books you'll every read).  So I was very interested in some research in the US showing the impact of this hard wiring in the workplace. ‘Women Don’t Ask’, a report by Babcock and Laschever, shows how sex differences in earnings emerge soon after graduation from university because young men routinely negotiate higher starting pay while most young women fail to do so. In surveys, when asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating men picked “winning a ball game” or a “wrestling match” while women picked “going to the dentist”. These differences in approach develop over time into a substantive earnings gap – even among people who went to the same universities and have the same qualifications, including MBA graduates.

We see a similar trend here in the UK - research from the ILM shows that women's lack of confidence comes through in their more cautious approach to applying for jobs  or promotions: 20% of men will apply for a role despite only partially meeting its job description, compared to 14% of women. Climbing the career ladder is notoriously competitive, and women’s hesitation in applying for more challenging roles inevitably puts them at a disadvantage.

Rather than pretending this doesn't exist, I hope women can take more time to understand - and accept - why they are wired in a certain way - knowledge is power and once you know why something happens, you can take steps to change the outcome.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Get me to the church on time

I heard the wonderful Helena Morissey on Women's Hour this week talking about the secret of her success.  She said it was having a supportive husband explaining in a matter of fact way that her husband liked taking care of the family and she liked going to work.  Her directness was very appealing. Her comments come on the back of Helen Fraser, the CEO of the Girls' Day School Trust who talked about the need to raise awareness with girls that if they want a career they need to pick the right husband.  Not just one who will 'do the dishes' but one who will genuinely support them in their career ambitions. Vicki Woods wrote a great article expanding on the theme in The Telegraph.

I couldn't agree more - and in my experience it's not just about choosing a partner with the right attitude, but also trying to find them when you are reasonably young.  I have always felt that a key factor in my ability to be a successful CEO was my decision to get married and have both my children before I was 30. 

There is strong evidence that one of the reasons women are failing to make it into the most senior positions is because they lack a strong partner to help them.   And this is partly because they wait until they are in their thirties or later to settle down and start to have children.  Not only does this mean that their childbearing years will coincide with exactly the time in their career when they are at the tipping point for breaking through the glass ceiling, they are trying to do two incredibly difficult things at once - progress up the corporate ladder whilst working out the rules for a happy balanced family life.

Today  the average age women get married is 33.  I was 26 which seems alarmingly early now- even then I was the first of my friends to trip down the aisle. 

For many years I felt the odd one out.  During my thirties, everyone I knew was moving into glamorous houses and taking three holidays a year. On the other hand, we were living in the same house and embracing Key Camp holidays for the family rather than hitting the slopes at Val d'Isere. As my children went to secondary school my contemporaries were going on maternity leave.  I wondered if I'd missed out on the great secret that everyone else knew.

And one day it all made sense. At the age of 40 I was asked to  become a CEO.  I didn't immediately accept  - I was worried about the impact it would have on family life. After much discussion, my husband Richard decided he would give up his job to take care of the children.  That meant I could go into the role with no strings attached, from day one. It's a tough call but one that more and more men are making.  I can't find any statistics on men as primary carers, but almost all senior women I know do have a partner who is the primary carer for the children even if he doesn't give up work completely.

So my advice is to start thinking about finding the "one" and having children in your mid-late twenties.  There's no evidence it leads to more divorce - spikes seem to come from either very early or second marriages. And I'm please to see my view on this point at least chimes with that of US blogger Penelope Trunk  - a great read if often controversial.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Lean In Sheryl - relax and take some credit

Unless you've been living in a cave you can't have missed the launch of the Facebook COO's new mandate for social change.  Her guide is billed as a practical guide for women to balance a successful home life, motherhood and a seat in the boardroom.

Sheryl Sandberg photographed at her desk in Facebooks HQ, Palo Alto, California. Portrait by Steve Schofield.
Sheryl looks tense - and no wonder - that perching on the keyboard look is notoriously hard to pull off.  FB too cool for chairs? (Picture copyright The Times)
I should canonize her.  I have set myself almost exactly the same goal.  So why do I feel a bit reluctant to praise her to the skies?

Many people have criticised her for not representing a realistic role model. The assertion is that with millions in the bank and an alpha woman lifestyle -  no 'normal' woman can expect to follow her advice.   But I think this is unfair.    She seems aware that she will be accused of not representing 'real' women, but she is doing her best to encourage real change using the advantages she has.

I like her honesty.  She admits she wants to be liked too much - apparently Zuckerberg told her this would hold her back.  When I suggested finding a man to coach you, I didn't have the wunderkind in mind but if it works - fine.  I recommend finding your husband young - and she agrees, albeit hers is a Silicon Valley CEO.  She firmly encourages women to speak up for themselves and not to fear accusations of bossiness.  I'm on board.

My only problem with "Lean In" is a vague but pervasive sense that it's too managed.  Too manicured.  Her conference room at Facebook is called "Only Good News".  Her "Lean In" Groups are told firmly only to feature positive stories and upbeat messages. She looks tense in the publicity shots - perhaps too worried about criticism.

Sheryl - have confidence.  Relax and lean in to the debate.  Don't worry about making it all positive - use your platform to encourage women from all walks of life to take what they find useful from your book without feeling they need to join a movement.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Can more senior women spearhead growth?

It is often said that we need more women on Boards because women's leadership skills are precisely what is needed to help the economy back to growth.  Not much has been written about precisely why women can make a specific contribution to recovery.  Is it just that we are all so disappointed with the reality of post bubble lifestyles that we'll try anything to restore some confidence? That sense that it can't get any worse, surely if more women were in charge things might improve and anyway what have we got to lose? 

I figured there might be something to this and there might be something in the idea that women and men have some clearly differentiated leadership characteristics and that more of the female and less of the male might be just what we need to dig us out of this flat lining era.

There is certainly good data that companies with more women on boards perform better financially.  This is the main genesis of the Davies Report which looks at the UK and is also commented on by US  women's coach Lynne Morton.  In her blog here she points out that Fortune 500 companies with a higher percentage of women officers experienced, on average, 35.1% higher return on equity and 34% higher return to shareholders;  Fortune 500 companies with more women board directors outperformed others by 53%  (Catalyst, The Bottom Line, 2002 and 2007). 

On the face of it, it seems hard to understand why companies aren't rushing towards talented women begging them to take senior roles. Or why two years after launching his report, Lord Davies is still saying that he thinks the UK will be doing very well to hit 25 per cent of women on Boards by 2015. It's currently at 17 per cent after a year of high profile campaigning. The situation is very similar across Europe with around 11 per cent of Board seats going to women - a position which has been fairly static for some years.

Perhaps people don't believe the data because they don't understand how it happens.  There isn't a great deal written on this but Mckinsey have done a fascinating series of reports trying to understand why an increase of women on boards seems to have such a dramatic increase on business performance. They asked men and women around the world which leadership traits were most important after the crisis. The ability to inspire by providing leadership and vision came top followed by setting expectations and connecting these clearly to rewards.  In both cases their modelling shows that women outperform men in these areas.

Despite this and much other similar data, men remain to be convinced.  In a global McKinsey study just over half of men surveyed said they didn't believe more women on boards led to greater returns.  And just as surprsingly perhaps only three quarters of the women believed the data. It is hard to think of other areas where beliefs and behaviour consistently fly in the face of the data and evidence, particularly when driving better peformance has never been harder.